What Is It?
Prayer is an address to an entity thought to be greater than oneself (the word “prayer” comes from the Latin precarius, which means “obtained by begging”). The practice is rooted in the belief that there is a power larger and wiser than our human selves that can influence our lives.
Prayer is probably as old as mankind and is part of virtually every religion in the world. However, although it is often linked to religion, prayer can be practiced outside the realm of a specific religion. Not surprisingly, many people feel a deep sense of calm after praying. Like meditation, prayer has been found to promote a feeling of relaxation that is conducive to both mental and physical health.
Prayer can be expressed out loud or in thought, alone or in a group. It typically consists of praise, thanksgiving, a request, or a confession. Most types of prayer can be divided into four categories: meditative prayer; ritualistic prayer; petitionary prayer (the most common form in the U.S.); and conversational prayer.
Meditative prayer focuses on a particular topic, word, sound, or phrase in order to induce a state of relaxation. It may also create a receptive state in which one is able to hear God.
Ritualistic prayer involves reciting texts that have been learned as part of a particular religious tradition or training.
Petitionary prayer consists of addressing a divine being directly to request something, such as guidance or physical healing for oneself or another person (the latter is known as intercessory prayer, and is a form of what is known in alternative medicine as non-local or distant healing).
Conversational prayer involves speaking on an very personal level with God about feelings, thoughts, and needs. Today polls show that most Americans believe that faith and prayer can benefit health. In response, more than 60 medical schools are now teaching courses on religious and spiritual issues, and many hospitals and clinics have set up centers for spirituality and healing.
How Does It Work?
Like many aspects of spirituality, exactly how prayer works is a mystery. Several theories exist. The easiest physiologic explanation is that prayer helps people handle stress more effectively. During any tense or anxiety-producing situation, the body’s adrenal glands release chemicals that raise the heart rate and blood pressure and lower immunity. Praying helps people maintain lower stress levels, thus enhancing immunity and promoting health in general. In addition, people who pray tend to have a sense of purpose and to find meaning in life. Such a positive outlook also may promote health and well-being.
In recent years, many studies have appeared about the efficacy of distant healing for various medical conditions. However, just how prayer can help people across vast distances continues to evade conventional or physical explanation.
What You Can Expect
There is no correct or incorrect way to pray. Your conception of the deity or entity you pray to and how you choose to talk to that entity are very personal decisions. You can use any of the formal prayers created through the ages, which are available in countless sources, or you can make up your own prayers or incantations.
Some people prefer to pray in a church, synagogue, or mosque. Others feel more comfortable praying at home. Some pray silently while working or doing their household chores. Many people, especially Christians, kneel when they pray, but you can also sit, walk, or lie down. You can pray using song and dance as well as words. As long as you are honest and earnest, there is no form or topic of prayer that is taboo.
Numerous scientific studies have evaluated the therapeutic effects of prayer. Generally, the research has shown that people who pray regularly are less likely to become ill and that when they do, they tend to recover faster. Interestingly, not only does prayer seem to have healing effects upon the people who pray, it also appears to benefit those who are prayed for by others.
Research reveals that people who pray have lower depression and suicide rates. Prayer even appears to lower blood pressure. In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, investigators found that individuals who attended religious services at least once a week and prayed at least once a day or studied the Bible frequently were 40% less likely to have high blood pressure than those who did so infrequently. In other research, elderly women recovering from hip-fracture surgery who had strong religious beliefs and practices were able to walk greater distances when they left the hospital than those who were not as religious.
Studies have also yielded findings in the area of distant healing (which includes intercessory prayer for someone who is ill), although many of these reports have appeared only in peer-reviewed parapsychology journals.
Perhaps the most famous study is one conducted by surgeon Randolph C. Byrd, which was published in 1988 in the Southern Medical Journal. In the study 393 coronary heart disease patients with similar symptoms of were admitted to a coronary care unit. The patients were divided into two groups, with neither group knowing whether they were being prayed-for or not. Distant healing was sent from born-again Christians to just under half of the patients. The remainder were not prayed-for and served as controls.
At the end of the study, all of the patients’ charts were analyzed. Results showed that significantly fewer patients in the prayed-for group required ventilation/intubation; they also needed fewer drugs and contracted pneumonia less than those who were not prayed for. Prayer did not shorten the hospital stay of either group, however.
Another distant healing study, of nearly 1,000 patients in the coronary care unit at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, was done in 1999. It found that those who were unwittingly prayed for fared better than those who got conventional care alone.
And a 1998 study of 40 people with AIDS, published in the Western Journal of Medicine, showed that the half who were prayed for by strangers felt better and had fewer medical complications than those who didn’t receive the anonymous prayers.
How To Choose a Practitioner
If you find that you are having trouble learning to pray, or want to investigate your spirituality in other ways, consult with a local pastor, priest, rabbi, or other spiritual leader, or contact one of the many centers for spirituality and healing that are affiliated with hospitals across the country.
There are no cautions associated with prayer.